Interview conducted by Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud
“Everybody remembers their street block, everybody has a childhood memory that matters to them. They don't want to see a landmark or a space disappear that helps them to remember.”
I am speaking with the formidable Berette Macaulay, an artist, writer, curator, and historian. I’ve known Berette for two years, and first met her when she became a curatorial fellow at On the Boards. But I’ve known of her work for much longer, including organizing a series of exhibitions and talks that brought Adama Delphine Fawundu and Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s MFON: Woman Photographers of the African Diaspora book and movement to Seattle, traveling across three institutional partners: the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at UW, Photographic Center Northwest, and the Frye Art Museum.
Every work I’ve encountered of Berette’s changes Seattle for the better. This includes her founding and leading the Black Cinema Collective (BCC) which screens, interrogates, and celebrates works by African and African diasporic filmmakers. This year, BCC launched a filmmaker micro-grant to fund works by Black filmmakers based in Washington State and Oregon.
Born in Sierra Leone, Berette was raised in Kingston, Jamaica. At one moment in our conversation, Berette drew on a memory of her international upbringing. “Another thing that I got from my parents,” she recalled “they always had dinner parties and gatherings, where they'd invite people from all across the professional and social fields. I grew up with ministers and carpenters and foreign nationals, and we had IFS students living with us. My relatives are from all over the world. So there was also that. Queer couples, my aunties and uncles, or aunties and aunties, and uncles and uncles, coming with doctors, lawyers, architects. I grew up as an only child listening to these adults all around me, talking about the politics of their countries or their cultures or just world issues.”
Berette continued: “I'm always trying to create that kind of space, because I understand how to see into that joyfully. That is the most interventionist thing that can ever happen. I learned how to see disagreement happen inside of a safe space.”
The intervention of making polyvocal conversations about gentrification centers the work of the UN-[TITLED] project, which opens tomorrow, Thursday, March 24th. Conceived of, produced, and curated by Berette, this highly collaborative, immersive, and multi-sited work – which moves from the Inscape arts building [formerly the INS Building] in Chinatown-International District to Wa Na Wari in the Central District – brings together more than 20 partners and artists to tell the histories of those neighborhoods. Among them: musician and composer Benjamin Hunter, architect Margaret Knight, choreographer and dancer Nia-Amina Minor, theater artist Tom Pearson, poet Kamari Bright, and architect Laurie Allison Wilson.
JASMINE: Tell me about your practice as an artist. What concepts and materials do you work with? What questions are driving your work?
BERETTE: This has been in constant shift for many years. Right now I'm identifying as an artist, curator, and still as a photographer. … And a movement artist and a writer.
My driving motivation is that I feel like an orphan in the world; where I live, and within whatever discipline I have practiced. And not just being a performer, dancer, former actor, and I was a model at a time. I used to be a makeup artist. I used to do lighting design and sound mixing, and video editing over a 30-year period of my life. I think the orphaning is what drives everything. I'm interested in a lot of stuff. I don't anchor in any one thing because of my life's background as a multicultural black person born in one place, raised in another place, passing through other places. Living this way means that belonging; identity and meaning-making or homeostasis is my interest.
What was the genesis of the UN-[TITLED] project?
There's two parts. It's a 20-year journey of thinking and it's been a two-and-a-half-year process in the making. The 20-year journey is rooted in coming to the United States of America. That started to create some kind of cartography of understanding and interrogating what belonging is, what memories of cultural identity is and how we hold to that, and what makes us recognize that within ourselves. It bleeds into our foods, in how we speak, how we build community, where we live, the street blocks we cherish.
As an undergraduate student living in New York, one of the projects that I worked on is a root artifact. I did a study and created a series of maps and guide information about the community gardens in the Lower East Side.
I spent a lot of time on Avenue B, and Sixth and Seventh, especially going to a lot of community gatherings, art events, garden tending and food security programs, and full moon ritual gatherings. I developed a really strong attachment to this neighborhood. The community gardens were created and tended to by the inhabitants of this neighborhood with deep, rich immigrant histories of Asian peoples, Irish, Hispanic peoples, Black folks, Polish Communities and they appealed to the city to help them and it fell on deaf ears. So they pulled their own resources and cleaned up for themselves and made over 50 beautiful community gardens. It is this new beginning that made the neighborhood more appealing to developers. And over a period of time, developers started making the rounds, identifying what blocks they wanted to purchase and take over from the city. And all of a sudden the city was interested in this neighborhood. Many of these communities are working-class people, some of them living in rent-stabilized situations, some of them not. And they don't have access to green spaces as much.
After witnessing this process, for the rest of the years that I lived in New York, I was able to read it: A neighborhood is occupied by working-class immigrants, then queer community folk and artists come in because that's where it's affordable. Then everybody makes it cute and enriches the culture together. And then the developers come in, they take it over, and then the white inflight happens. And then all of those people who made the place interesting disappear, are displaced.
I share all of that, because it's super important in terms of the work I’m doing now. I’ve only lived here [in Washington] for just over six years, so who the hell do I think I am making this project? But this whole experience informed what and how I have witnessed what is happening in Seattle and I saw it quickly, because it is happening so fast.
I don’t live in Seattle myself, because I can't afford it. I would live in Seattle proper if I could, but I can't. When I first moved here, the skyline had some more gaps in it. It had a lot of decorative cranes and I wasn't always putting together what those cranes meant. I started also watching the un-housed communities of people increase.
Who are the people who are making these decisions or helping to design these decisions at the very least? And what would be a really risky intentional intervention if those architects were black woman architects who are on the line working with white male architects who usually support these big development projects? What would they have to say if they were in the room with Tom Pearson, Co-Artistic Director, Third Rail Projects, and with everybody else that we bring on subsequently to shape how we're talking about this issue and how we want to invite communities into shaping the information we share and learn when making this project.
Where does the title of ‘the UN-[TITLED] project’ come from? What does it mean? How does it resonate with this work?
That came along nine, ten months in. It was just a random WhatsApp conversation I was having with Tom [Pearson]. I was just like, “do you realize because we've been calling it ‘Untitled’ because we didn't have a title?” Do you realize that when you can claim ownership of land or house or property, that's on a property title, it's a title? We got to think about how we're going to write this word because this is an intervention. We are Un-titling. We're going to be the untitled peoples.
It's sitting totally inside of a paradox because I mean, as we speak, I'm living in a home that is titled. That's what ownership is. And so if we're thinking about honoring land and honoring the true custodians and stewards of this land, the indigenous tribes of this land, if we're honoring Turtle Island, if we're honoring the people who have worked the land, who have been forcibly brought to this land, all of the different kinds of settlers on the land, if we're thinking about borders, if we're thinking about the un-housed people living in the midst of all this, it just made sense to me to question ownership and to question the idea of titles and therefore question within that, what belonging and a right to it means in this context.
You’ve conducted a host of research – including oral histories – as part of your process. What have been some interesting histories and stories you’ve learned?
There's a lot that came up in the research, but I feel compelled to use this space to talk about what came up in the oral histories. So far we have 12 participants in the oral history series that was recorded at Jack Straw Cultural Center Studios. Karen Akada Sakata, owner of Bush Garden Restaurant, Jazmyn Scott, Executive Director of Arte Noir, Brandi Li, who works in Asian queer advocacy in Chinatown, and TraeAnna Holiday. [In sitting with each interviewee] common threads began to emerge: the great pain of losing memories, because of the speed at which redevelopment divestment has happened, that whole blocks of places that they knew are gone. If you don't even have a single standing building, establishment, or landmark there, you forget what was there.
This immediately triggered for me, interpretively, that you lose your bearings. You need your inner compass of where you are! In very real walking terms and this in turn messes with how you're identified, and how you're relating with other people in the neighborhood. They named places like the Red Apple, Miss Helen's, Thompson's Point of View, Mon Hei Bakery, and the former Black Panther’s 2nd headquarters. There’s the history of the Liberty Bank being the first [Black-owned] bank in the Pacific Northwest and the redevelopment stories of that.
There are a lot of repeated themes and testimonies across all of the recordings. When you have a dispersed people and a displaced set of people out of these neighborhoods, because they can't afford to live there anymore, you're also talking about access issues.
If we talk about the research, the research is with the people. I've done a lot of reading, of course. I've informed myself as best I could in the reading and writing and journaling and asking questions. But it's all in there in those oral histories – that's the root.
You are working in spaces across Central and Chinatown-International Districts. Why is it important to make work in these neighborhoods? What are you seeking to activate?
If I lean back to my New York days, I hung around immigrant communities, because I am an immigrant and for the longest time, that was mainly my circle of people before hanging out with Americans. A lot of the things that I've tried to program through my work with different institutions and with Black Cinema Collective have been with folks in the Central District, and to a degree with folks in the Chinatown-International District.
I met Cynthia Brothers [founder of Vanishing Seattle] who introduced me to Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, who is the president of Black Heritage Society, [and who] is going to archive these works, particularly the oral histories.
I was introduced to Tara Tamaribuchi, who is an artist tenant in the Inscape building and is one of the co-organizers for Friends of Inscape, trying to save that building that is now under threat of redevelopment and ousting the artists. Tara is Japanese-American and she had relatives interned in that building. As do other artists, who have those personal histories with that building and now have their art studios there. Knowing that district and the CD were both formally redlined areas that are now both being turned into Disneylands, (that's me borrowing a term from JM Wong who in the oral histories said, “our neighborhood's being turned into an Asian Disneyland.”)
When you think about what the Inscape building is, how much trauma is held in that building for so many racialized immigrant peoples, then you think about Black American histories, I knew I wanted to have a multi-site activation. If this starts at Inscape and closes in joy and reclamation affirmations at Wa Na Wari, that is a particular journey that helps to not only educate and implicate participating audiences in learning these histories, but also in not being overwhelmed by them. Which matters a lot, because when you remove the overwhelm, you've made it personal and you've shown examples of how this work can happen through experience, through immersed experience and relationship building.
There's also the performance. I had a couple of people in oral history say what they're excited about is to be in conversation with each other – they've never been invited to an opportunity to connect these histories. That's also why these neighborhoods are being assertively named to sort of gesture to the possibility of ongoing relationship and conversation, after the vanities of a performance are over.
What questions do you want audiences to walk away with?
We're giving them a lot to think about. There's been a lot of care questioning and thinking about how to pace out how much we're giving them to think about, so that we don't create overwhelm. What we are wanting to do is to facilitate self-reflection.
What I care about is that they walk through this thing and even a single nugget shutters them a little bit into going: “Whoa, I hadn't thought about it that way before.” “I walk that street block and I didn't know that about that place. I think I want to go back there.” “Oh, I didn't know that this existed. That sounds really cool. I think I want to go to their website and see if maybe I can go to a show there or something.”
We're looking for you to think about your own memories and relate it to what you have learned and see how that instigates some kind of new walking action for you to build your own relationship with these places. Where's your personal experience inside of this, and why does it matter to you? What is it going to motivate you to look more closely when the show is done?